The Harvard International Law Journal has a fascinating exchange on Nineteenth-Century International Law. In “Universal International Law: Nineteenth-Century Histories of Imposition and Appropriation,” Arnulf Becker Lorca challenges the notion that international law became universal through a unilateral process of European expansion. Rather, he argues, international law became universal during the nineteenth century as semi-peripheral jurists appropriated and reinterpreted international law to include non-Western sovereigns.
According to Becker Lorca, “a generation of non-Western international lawyers studied European international law with not only the purpose of learning how to play by the new rules of international law that Western powers sought to impose on them, but also with the aim of changing the content of those rules” (482). As Becker Lorca shows, non-Western jurists successfully reshaped some of the central elements of the European law of nations, namely, positivism, the standard of civilization, and absolute sovereignty “to advocate for a change in extant rules of international law and to justify the extension of the privileges of formal equality to their own states in their interactions with Western powers (482-483).”
Becker Lorca's article points up the enduring question of the tension between imposition and appropriation of Western legal norms in the nineteenth century. While his argument focuses on the development of nineteenth century international law, its central issues are relevant, more broadly, to legal historians working to understand the movement of laws and legal norms between Western and non-Western legal experts either under conditions of formal colonial rule, unequal treaty relations, or informal imperial rule in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
You can download the complete exchange, including a response from Gustavo Gozzi, “The Particularistic Universalism of International-Law in the Nineteenth Century,” at the website of the Harvard International Law Journal.